One of the students in my graduate seminar did a research paper on 1980s hair metal, which is a pretty cool topic, but which is not the point of this post, except insofar as it gives me an excuse to post this clip of Michael Angelo Batio playing the "quad guitar":
Ha, you missed one.
Anyway, my student said at one point that the challenge for her was going to be resisting the temptation to shoehorn a lot of quirky, funny, interesting-in-themselves details into an argument to which they were irrelevant. I know the feeling. Research (especially archival research) leads you to all kinds of odd little finds, small details that fill out your picture of the general subject you're researching and are really neat in themselves but which, let's face it, don't quite fit in the thing you're writing. One is always tempted to abuse writerly principles of economy and coherence and find some way to use them anyway. One is not always successful at resisting the temptation. And by "one" I mean "me." I'm pretty good at connecting distantly related points anyway, so I can usually gin up some semi-sorta-plausible rationale for stuffing one more amusing quote or peculiar historical detail into an argument. The thing is, you can always throw a couple of things that like into an article without hurting its structure too much, but past a certain point you run the risk of letting the details overwhelm the whole, of submerging the hard clean outlines of your conceptual structure in garlands of arabesque. And then you might find yourself playing the metaphorical quad guitar, captivated by the bright shiny gimmick but losing sight of the rock. (See what I did there, connecting the distantly related points?)
When I write, much of my revision process involves cutting back on the things I like but don't really need. But it hurts, HURTS, to leave those little gems on the cutting-room floor. I was looking through one of my morgue files this morning and found this little thing, a letter to the editor of Good Times (formerly the Express Times), a Bay area "undeground" (i.e., hippie) newspaper from the late 1960s. Some background: I had found (in the Hoover Institution archive of New Left/counterculture materials) an article by Greil Marcus that I'm using in my upcoming exotica article.* Marcus wrote it when he was quite young, either in or recently out of graduate school, and I've never seen it reprinted anywhere else, although it's an interesting piece and adumbrates some of the notions he would develop in The Old Weird America. But anyway, I also found a letter to the editor about it (titled "Intellectual Bullshit") in the next issue:
I really dig your paper, especially the good guy/bad guy slant, BUT please don’t print any more of that intellectual bullshit by what’s his name. You’re supposed to be hip, right? Well, just take the first sentence: "When we return to America remember there was no real innocence after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Endicott, the severest of Puritans destroyed Hawthorne’s Merry Mount, erasing the orgies and childish bachanale in favor of a darker religion." Now what the fuck does all that mean? Can you tell me—in English? I mean, I know you can’t since this is a letter, but don’t print any more college papers. What did he get on it, anyway—a B-plus?” Joe Usetit, letter to the editors, Good Times 2, no. 14 (April 9 1969), 12.
Given that "Joe Usetit" looks like a pseudonym, I can't discount the possibility that Marcus wrote this letter himself, but assuming it's not a prank, this is actually quite an interesting letter — not so much the letter itself as what it says about the incongruous appearance of Marcus's writing in a grubby obscure underground paper, and, more generally, the uneasy place of intellectualism in the 1960s counterculture.** It's not that intellectuals had no place in underground newspapers, rock mags, etc.; it's that the job of the "intellectual" had been redefined while leaving its fundamental identity in place.*** (And as this happened it created new difficulties and opportunities for intellectuals like Marcus.) But really, that's not what my article is about, and exiling the whole thing to an endnote is really no solution, because then what's the note doing there? You sometimes see articles by academics where the average page has about ten lines of above-the-line main text and two-thirds of the page is taken up by kitchen-sink footnotes. It's usually a bad sign when your writing starts to look like that. So that letter from "Joe Usetit" got expunged, though I at least have the consolation of being able to put it up on my blog.
*Greil Marcus, “American Classical Music,” San Francisco Express Times 2, no. 12 (25 March 1969), 5.
**All due apologies for using such a blunt and inadequate term for such a complicated and multifaceted entity, but you have to call it something, and anyway you know what I mean when I say "counterculture," right? Close enough for rock and roll, as they say, or at least for a blog.
***It's probably worth quoting Stuart Hampshire's definition of the intellectual again:
First, an intellectual is someone who takes it for granted that a
strenuously developed and articulate intelligence constitutes a claim
to be recognized, and an independent status in society, even apart from
any solid achievements in science or scholarship or literature. . .
Second, an intellectual is someone who refuses to be confined to one
specialized, or professional, application of his power; he will be
ready to inquire into almost anything that is formulated in
sufficiently strict intellectual terms, and will find delight in the
process of inquiry, quite independently of the results. . . . Third, an
intellectual is someone who never lowers his voice in piety, and who is
not prepared to be solemn and restrained, in deference to anything
other than the internal standards of the intellect and the imagination.